What Are the Best Native UK Plants for a Low-Maintenance Green Roof?

March 26, 2024

Green roofs, a revolutionary concept of integrating nature with urban architecture, have taken the world by storm. This gardening style is rapidly gaining popularity, especially in the United Kingdom, where homeowners and organizations are embracing the concept of turning their roofs into living, breathing gardens. Not only do green roofs look aesthetically pleasing, they also offer a bundle of environmental and economic benefits.

A well-designed green roof can help reduce heat loss in winter and cool the building in summer, reducing energy bills. It can also absorb rainwater, reducing the risk of flooding, and provide a habitat for urban wildlife. But, what makes a green roof truly spectacular are the plants growing on it. So, which plants are best suited for a green roof in the UK? Let’s delve into this.

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Understanding Green Roofs: Extensive and Intensive

Before we explore the best plants for a green roof, it’s crucial to understand the two main types of green roofs – extensive and intensive.

Extensive green roofs are lighter, shallower, and are typically home to drought-resistant plants such as sedum and certain native wildflowers. As they require minimal maintenance and irrigation, they’re an excellent choice for inaccessible roofs.

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On the other hand, intensive green roofs are deeper, heavier, and can support a wider variety of plants, including small trees and shrubs. However, they require more maintenance and a stronger support structure.

Sedums: The Go-To Plant for Green Roofs

Sedums are the first choice when it comes to green roofs. They are a diverse group of succulent plants that are known for their ability to survive in tough conditions. Sedums have water-storing leaves, which enable them to withstand periods of drought. These characteristics make them perfect for an extensive green roof.

In the UK, there are several native sedum species ideal for green roofs. Sedum acre, also known as Goldmoss stonecrop, is a low-growing, evergreen perennial that produces bright yellow flowers in early summer. Sedum album, or white stonecrop, is another hardy species with white, star-shaped flowers.

Wildflowers: Adding Variety to Your Green Roof

Wildflowers are another excellent choice for green roofs. They not only add a burst of colour to your roof but also attract a host of pollinators like bees and butterflies, contributing to local biodiversity.

Cornflowers, poppies, and ox-eye daisies are just a few examples of the many wildflowers that can thrive on a green roof. However, it’s important to ensure that the species you choose are native to the UK. These plants will be better adapted to the local climate and will require less maintenance.

Grasses and Herbs: Enhancing the Green Roof Experience

Grasses and herbs provide an additional layer of texture and interest to a green roof. They can provide food and shelter for a variety of insects, and some species can also withstand periods of drought.

Common bent grass, crested dog’s tail, and sheep’s fescue are all native grasses that work well on a green roof. Herbs such as thyme, chives, and oregano can also be incorporated into the planting scheme. They not only look good, they can also provide a handy supply of fresh herbs for your kitchen!

Choosing the Right Substrate for a Green Roof

The substrate, or soil layer, on a green roof is an essential factor that determines which plants will thrive. The substrate must be lightweight, well-draining, and able to retain enough water to support the plants.

For extensive green roofs, a substrate depth of 70-200mm is generally recommended. This can support a range of sedums, grasses, and wildflowers. For intensive green roofs, the substrate depth can be between 200-400mm, allowing for a greater variety of plants.

Planting and Maintenance of a Green Roof

Once you’ve chosen your plants and prepared the substrate, the next step is planting. This can be done either by sowing seeds directly onto the substrate, or by planting small plug plants. Regardless of the method you choose, it’s important to ensure that the plants are watered well until they become established.

Maintenance of a green roof largely depends on the types of plants chosen. Sedums, grasses, and native wildflowers generally require minimal maintenance. However, they may need occasional watering and weeding, particularly in the first few years after planting.

Remember, creating a green roof is not just about aesthetics. It’s about creating a living, breathing ecosystem that benefits not just you, but the environment too. Choose your plants wisely and enjoy your own slice of nature, right on your rooftop!

Exploring the Semi-Intensive Green Roofs

Moving a step further, there are semi-intensive green roofs which are a blend between extensive and intensive roof gardens. They’re designed to support a broader range of plant species than extensive roofs, but require less maintenance than intensive roofs.

The substrate depth in semi-intensive green roofs typically ranges from 120-200mm. When considering semi-intensive roofs, the choice of plants broadens significantly. Apart from sedums, wildflowers, and grasses, this type of roof can support heathers, ferns, and some types of perennials and shrubs.

Heathers, such as the Bell heather and the Cross-leaved heath, are both native to the UK and can thrive in full sun to partial shade. Ferns, on the other hand, prefer shaded areas, making them ideal for roofs with partial sun exposure.

When choosing perennials for your green roof, select drought-tolerant species. Some options include Purple Coneflower, Yarrow, and Black-Eyed Susan. These plants not only withstand harsh conditions, but they also add a touch of colour and attract pollinators.

As for the shrubs, go for the ones that are low-growing and resilient. Juniper and Cotoneaster are two such selections that are hardy and require low maintenance.

Living Walls: An Extension of Green Roofs

Building on the concept of green roofs, living walls are another innovative way to integrate nature into the urban environment. Also known as vertical gardens, living walls are covered with plants and can provide many of the same benefits as green roofs.

Living walls can support a wide range of plants, a factor primarily dependent on the growing medium, the system used and the wall’s exposure to sunlight.

For sunny walls, plants like sedum, ivy, and honeysuckle are excellent choices. For shaded walls, ferns and hostas are more appropriate. Like green roofs, living walls require a well-drained substrate, careful planting, and regular maintenance to thrive.

Conclusion: Harvesting the Potential of Green Roofs

With climate change becoming an ever-increasing concern, embracing sustainable practices like green roofing is more important than ever. Creating a green roof or a living wall is an excellent way to make a personal contribution to environmental conservation.

The beauty of green roofs lies in their versatility. Whether you opt for an extensive, intensive, or semi-intensive roof, the key is to select the right plants that can thrive in your specific conditions. Native UK plants, being well-adapted to local weather conditions, are an excellent choice for this purpose.

Remember, it’s not just about creating a beautiful roof garden or living wall. It’s about creating a sustainable, low-maintenance ecosystem that not just beautifies your surroundings, but also contributes to a healthier environment.

As you embark on your green roof journey, keep in mind that the success of your roof largely depends on your choice of plants, the roof system you decide to install, and the care you give it. With the right approach, you can enjoy your own piece of nature, enhancing not just your property, but also the world around you.